New York Rescinds Controversial Prison Books Policy

Getting books behind bars is no easy task. Correctional systems across the country have strict rules about which books prisoners can read and how they must be shipped — and these rules are constantly changing.

In New Jersey, for example, a ban on “The New Jim Crow was just lifted in response to public outcry. Last month, Texas banned 10,000 books from the prison system, and the ban remains in place.

And for a brief time in New York, a pilot program limited acceptable reading material at three facilities to less than 100 items. 24 of them were coloring books. It came in the form of a new directive from the New York State Department of Corrections, which limited the number of vendors allowed to send items to the prisons. That meant that people who wanted to send books had to pick from a pre-approved and very short list.

Prison officials argue that restrictions on reading material like these are necessary to prevent unrest — for example, all books have to be shipped new in order to eliminate any secret messages or prohibited supplies from also being included. The distribution of pornographic and violent books is also disallowed. Censorship is permissible in this context, they claim, because without it, prisoners might be difficult to manage.

But for as long as prisons have been censoring, prisoners and advocates have been speaking out.

Depriving people of reading material feels especially inhumane for people trapped behind bars without other sources of enrichment or escapism. And sometimes those “controversial“ reading materials contain important lessons about history and culture — like the critical race theory in “The New Jim Crow” that explores inequality in the prison system.

The advocacy group Books Through Bars NYC warned that restricting inmate packages to pre-approved vendors effectively gave for-profit companies free rein in this particular domain. Families who wanted to send and bring gifts had to go through these vendors, no matter whether they provided the necessary products — and regardless of the price. This isn’t the only example of profiting off the prison system: The prison phone industry is infamous for this.

For families struggling to support incarcerated loved ones, this policy change could have a huge impact. Meanwhile, groups like Books Through Bars, which sends free books to prisoners across the U.S. upon request, wouldn’t have been able to serve their community.

A prison system concerned about rehabilitation should be delighted that prisoners want to read, expanding access to prison libraries and encouraging prisoners to request books when the library doesn’t meet their needs. These kinds of policies often go into effect very quietly — if you don’t know your state’s policies on books for prisoners, it’s worth asking for more information. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Take Action!

You can join Care2 activists in telling Texas that inmates deserve “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and numerous other books inexplicably banned by the state.

Access to reading material isn’t the only fight for prisoners: at the infamous Rikers facility in New York, where prisoners endure deplorable conditions, the injustice isn’t limited to the prisons. Guards are also sexually assaulting visitors via invasive strip searches, and tens of thousands of Care2 activists think that should stop. Join them!

Photo credit: Stewart Butterfield

48 comments

Marie W
Marie W5 months ago

thank you for sharing

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natasha p
Past Member 10 months ago

ty

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Stephanie s
Stephanie Y10 months ago

Good

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Amanda M
Amanda M10 months ago

Christina S, not everyone who is in prison is doing time for a crime they've been found guilty of. TOO MANY of the inmates of today are people AWAITING TRIAL who can't afford the insanely high bail that was posted. If you're "deep blue collar" and charged with a crime and the judge gives you bail in the range of $100K or higher, do you think that person or their family can afford that? Hell no, they can't! Worse, despite our right to a fast and fair trial, too many people are in that judicial limbo for YEARS, and it's fact that somebody who can afford a private lawyer over an overworked and underpaid public defender is going to get a better deal AND a better shot at trial! Don't even get me started on those who are falsely accused with a crime and going through this hell-look how many of those poor souls have to fight tooth and nail to get their life, freedom, and name back. Yes, I know there are people in jail who deserve to be there, but what about "innocent until proven guilty" and the falsely accused? Doesn't everybody deserve the chance to occupy their mind, better themselves, and further their education? The more options available that help rehabilitate them, the less the rate of recidivism will be. Sorry for the rant, but for the past few years this sort of thing has been a sore subject and a new focus for me.

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Ramesh B
Ramesh B10 months ago

Noted

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Paola S
Past Member 10 months ago

Thanks for updating

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Carol C
Carol C10 months ago

Great news that the censorship has stopped in New York. One step forward - thousands more to go. Petitions signed!

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Danii P
Past Member 10 months ago

Thank you for sharing

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Ann B
Ann B10 months ago

these are people that have killed - stolen -raped children - and you are worried about the books they get to read----- REALLY we already give them food shelter and free medical ...lets be thinking about why they are there NOT what they have to read

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Anne F
Anne F10 months ago

this is the first story I'd heard about the books having to be bought only from those vendors authorized to ship to prison (had seen story about food and clothing)...Seems wrong to limit books

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